The D Day beaches of Normandy are a great opportunity to be immersed in World War II for both veterans and the younger generation. The whole area has a number of museums, monuments and war cemeteries to visit.
However, you need a careful planning to be able to see it all, especially if you have limited time.
You need to rent a car to move around freely, choose a hotel and plan your visits to each area.
As you can see from the map, the area that contains the most interesting sites is spread on about 100km, from Saint Mère Eglise in the West, to the Orne at the East.
The different landing areas are (from East to West):
- Sword beach: Ouistreham and the area near the Orne. 6th British airborne division, 3rd British Infantry Division, 41st Royal Marine Commando and N°4 British Commando. (Dark blue)
- Juno beach: Saint Aubin-sur-Mer and Courseulles-sur-Mer. 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade and 48th Royal Marine Commando (red)
- Gold beach: Ver sur Mer, Arromanches, Port en Bessin. 50th British Infantry Division, 8th British Armoured Brigade and 47th Royal Marine Commando (yellow)
- Omaha beach: Saint Laurent sur Mer to the Pointe du Hoc. 1rst and 29th American infantry divisions, rangers (green)
- Utah beach: Sainte Marie du Mont and Sainte Mère Eglise. 4th American infantry division, 101st and 82nd American airborne divisions (light blue)
Display D Day beaches in Normandy on a larger map
What to see
Here are the visits I liked the most, in order of interest
- Bayeux museum: really interesting. Very dense and informative displays and lots of equipment. You can pay a visit to the Bayeux tapestry and cathedral on the same day.
- Normandy American Cemetery of Colleville. Very moving.
- Arromanches museum: depicts the construction of the mulberry harbours.
- Pointe du Hoc and Longues Battery: free entrance on both; Gives a good idea of what the Atlantic wall was
- Airborne museum at Sainte Mère Eglise and Pegasus bridge museum: if you are interested in airborne troops, do not miss these
- Omaha beach memorial museum and Utah beach landing museums: a bit less interesting, visit if you have time
I also visited the Caen memorial museum and honestly did not like it. It is the opposite of the Bayeux museum: a large, spacious building with videos and impressive displays, but very little authentic artifacts and vehicles.
Getting there and moving around
From Paris, you can easily reach Normandy by car (3 hour drive to Bayeux). From Britain, there is a very practical ferry crossing going from Portsmouth to Ouistreham.
You have direct trains from Paris to Caen or even Bayeux.
Unless on an organized tour, I recommend hiring a car in order to move around freely, especially if you have limited time. Going from East to West is quite fast thanks to the A13, then N13 highways.
Where to stay
Your choice of a place to stay will depend on what you plan to see and how many days you have.
To me, the best choice is to stay at the center of the area and visit from there. Find a hotel in Bayeux for instance. Staying in a seaside hotel in Arromanches is even nicer, but you will have to take a network of small roads to go in and out of town. Check out this list of hotels in Calvados.
There are also lots of bed and breakfasts in the area. You can find them on specialized websites such as Gites de France Calvados. If you prefer a vacation rental, you can find a good choice on the Homelidays website.
Eating and drinking
If you plan to eat on the go, ask for the days of local markets and buy your food there. If there are no markets, explore small shops. You will get better food than in supermarkets.
If you like seafood, go to seaside restaurants at Arromanches or Ouistreham. Try the milk fed calf cutlet with cream and mushrooms or if you want to live dangerously, an andouillette or tripes à la mode de Caen. Taste some of the smelly but delicious normand cheeses: Pont l’Evêque, Livarot and of course, camembert. Look for my favorite pasty: the douillon, or for some caramels d’Isigny. Drink some cider and try the Calvados liquor in a trou Normand.